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Is it still travel season?

Scott N. Miller
Vail, CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” Stephanie Whitmarsh’s family is taking off, but cutting back.

The Whitmarshes, who live in Avon’s Wildridge neighborhood, are planning a driving trip to see family in Texas this summer. But close to home, the family will drive down to Avon, then bike to school and work.

“We joke that if we lived in Eagle-Vail or Edwards, we’d hardly drive at all,” Whitmarsh said.

As the summer approaches and the price of gas nears $4 per gallon, is this the year people stop traveling?

Eric Escudero doesn’t think so. Escudero, the public relations director for AAA Colorado, said the same questions have been asked the last few years, as gas has passed $2, then $3 per gallon. And, as people have wondered what the price of gas will do to travel, weekend traffic counts at the Eisenhower Tunnel have set records the past two summers.

“What we’ve seen is that people will still travel, but they’ll adjust their plans,” Escudero said. “People will often travel closer to home, or they’ll stay at less expensive hotels or eat at less-expensive restaurants.”

Or, like the Whitmarshes, they’ll cut back on driving as they can at home so they can still travel.

“People look forward to summer vacations,” Escudero said. “They’ll spend $40 or $80 more for gas.”

State parks busy

Travel closer to home seems to be showing up on the Colorado State Parks reservation lines. Campground and cabin reservations for summer weekends at the state parks are getting hard to come by, even with May barely begun.

Sylvan Lake State Park southeast of Eagle is already booked for several summer weekends, including July 4.

It’s hard to tell, though, whether the activity at the state reservation center this year is due to gas prices or just growth in the state.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in bookings,” Colorado State Parks spokeswoman Clare Sinacori. “I think gas prices may be affecting people’s decisions.”

Highline State Park near Fruita is booked for the weekends into June right now.

Sinacori said that could be the result of Fruita’s efforts to appeal to mountain bikers.

“If people don’t want to spend a lot of money and driving time, that could be an alternative to Moab,” she said. “I think places that offer more affordable opportunities for recreation will see that greater demand.”

Is a break on the way?

While the state doesn’t track the reasons people are booking visits at its parks, the local AAA chapter does track its members’ car-buying decisions through its auto sales assistance program.

“We’re seeing very few people buying SUVS right now, and we’ve had a lot of interest in more fuel-efficient cars,” Escudero said.

While the market is shifting away from trucks and SUVs, though, Escudero said the current price run-up may level off in the coming weeks.

“We usually see prices spike in the spring and early summer, although it’s been early this year, and then level off or drop a little after Memorial Day,” he said.

But the past few years have been different, he added.

“The only consistent thing has been inconsistency,” Escudero said. “No one can

accurately predict what’s going to happen.”

Strong summer ” so far

As with winter reservations, the Vail Valley hasn’t taken a hit on summer reservations ” at least so far.

“We’re looking pretty good for the summer,” said Chris Romer of the Vail Valley Partnership, which is the valley’s largest reservation center.

Romer wouldn’t reveal exact numbers, but said the Vail Valley’s summer bookings ” as a percentage of occupied hotel rooms ” so far are ahead of other mountain resorts. For August and September, the valley’s numbers lead the industry.

This summer’s bookings are looking solid at Vail Management Company, a local

property management firm.

“Just like the winter, we’re looking good for the summer,” Matt Debus said. “Gas prices and the national economy didn’t really affect our business.”

But, Romer said, summer travelers traditionally make their reservations just a few weeks ahead of their travel dates.

“That means we still have a long way to go, but a lot of opportunity,” Romer said.

The big question, though, is when drivers will say “enough” and stop driving.

Romer said Paul Yesawich, one of the speakers at the recent Mountain Travel Symposium in Vail, had an answer he likes.

“He said that Americans view travel as a birthright,” Romer said. “Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans still traveled. It took a while to come back, but they still traveled.”

At AAA Colorado, Escudero said the question is asked frequently, but there hasn’t been an answer yet.

“No one really knows what the number is that will really affect travel,” he said. “We’re all hoping we never find out what it is.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930, or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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